Walking into Los Angeles-designer Barbara Barry’s 3,000 square-foot gallery at ION Orchard’s Proof Living store is to leave behind the cacophony of Orchard Road and enter a bubble of serenity. Here the sticky, all-over-the-place Singapore light becomes cool and directed into smooth, fluid lines; the random assortment of shapes and forms that make up the busy street below fall in line and become tidy, orderly, elegant compositions and noise, becomes peaceful silence.
Barry’s classic, American-heritage style furniture is set up impeccably. All pieces are from her luxury lifestyle label Barbara Barry Realized by Henedron. The furniture owns the space, transforming it into artistic arrangements of perfect lines, soothing shapes, and nurturing shades and textures. The natural sunlight that streams in through large windows is as much of a design material as the furniture itself and one sees the light being captured and sculptured into the spaces in-between the furniture, like water taking the shape of the vessel it is poured into, forming an integral part of the final orchestration, the fabric that the furniture rests on. This goes beyond interior design, or furniture or product design. This is designing a mood, a lifestyle, a soul.
Living the Dream
Looking at Barry’s refined pieces, such as the dark brown, American walnut Bowmont dining table or, her favourite piece, the oval-back Bracelet chair, in their picture perfect arrangements in a living area, a bedroom, a dining area, one imagines America’s most graceful women from the ’50s and ’60s – Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn – being at home here, making delightful conversation over cocktails. And when Barry walks into the gallery, it is immediately apparent where all this refinement and elegance is born. From Barry herself.
Everything about Barry speaks of her design, her oeuvre. From her personal style – a chic, well-cut black top with broad playful sleeves that puff at the end; playing peek-a-boo with her trademark double strand pearl necklace; straight cut trousers, also black; and a splash of red pumps – to how she moves and gestures, graceful and well-mannered; to her soft, warm, genuine way of speaking; she is Barbara Barry Inc. Unlike some designers who keep their professional persona separate from who they are in real life, Barry walks the talk, all the way. And it has contributed hugely to her business success. “It’s not an idea I’m selling, it’s an idea I live,” she states clearly. “I walk my talk. Even in our office [in Los Angeles] we serve tea, we have porcelain, we use beautiful linen napkins, we iron our napkins … so when our clients come into our room and we serve them and we show them how lovely life can be, that the toughness of life can be balanced by gentleness and the things you surround yourself with – we have devotees for life.”
Barry elaborates on how this gracious way of living pervades her work. “It’s a deep philosophy,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a ski resort in the mountains or a beach house, it’s all about serenity. And even though these words sometimes seem hackneyed, they are part of our character: harmony, centredness, peace and calm. For instance, you could throw this whole room up and have it land different ways and it still would be harmonious; because it’s designed by one person – from my hand, over time and with maturation.”
Art as Design
That serenity is achieved through simplicity, uncluttered lines and a clean palette is evident in Barry’s pieces. “I’m not about a lot of decoration, I’m about a mood,” she says gently. “I really want an elegant mood and to me simplicity is the ultimate statement about this. It takes a certain confidence to allow yourself to be simple, to have a simple interior. Look at how the light comes in and becomes a decorative layer, and, similarly, so does the food or the tea or the art. My work is really very studied in the sense of thinking about the big picture on hand, not about a fabulous table or a fabulous new lamp … creating something that is potentially editorial around itself because it’s about the assimilation.” Her interior compositions in her Proof Living gallery exemplify this. Beautiful coffeetable books sit in a small pile on a wooden cocktail table; on a skirted side table is an elegant lamp and on another a vase of flowers bursting with freshness; bolstering this is a deep, comfy sofa; all unique pieces that work seamlessly together.
Barry assigns this approach to her artistic background. Raised by an artist mother and trained in art school, she works with an artist’s eye. She explains, “I’m an artist first and I have that philosophy of understanding and not overdoing. I was taught at art school to study any painting, like a Caravaggio where the painting is very steady and brings you in and back around, as does any good photograph or piece of art. So in a sense I’m always looking at things in a two dimensional way, also. For instance, a red pillow in here could, like a dot on a painting, totally change everything.”
My Life, My Inspiration
Just like Barry lives the life she designs, so her creative process is her life. “I am my own muse,” she says. “I am thinking, as any creative person is, 24/7. I search for things in my own home to support me – I want my bed to feel a certain way, I want my bedside table to pull out right, I want a lamp a certain way – so my process is all day long. I generally work best at home, making a cup of tea, answering an email, or cutting a rose in the garden. I’m not a person who could be behind four walls and have to do something. My creative process is very organic, which I think is very natural.”
“Capturing an idea is important,” she continues. “It comes from who knows where into your head and you think ‘oh that’s really good, I’ve got it!’ Some of my best ideas are in my dreams, and I keep a little pad by my bed. I draw what comes to me in my dreams and go back to sleep, even though sometimes ideas that seemed really good in the middle of the night are less so in the morning (she laughs). I also do a lot of drawing on the airplane; when everybody’s gone, the blackberry is off and it’s all quiet. That’s when things come.”
If Barry gets inspiration from her own home, then she has much fresh material to draw from as she has just completed her 5,000 square feet home in a quiet, almost rural, corner of Beverly Hills. Several years in the making, Barry’s home, like her life, speaks of her design, her work, her eye. Everything in her home bears her unmistakable mark, from the furniture to the homeware to the linen to the walls and floors, in a foundation of white with tones of grey, blue and beige, all pastel. Everything is perfectly coordinated, from the crisp sheets and pillows to the art on the walls to the cut flowers on the poolside table that match the foliage in her garden. And everything is available to her clients through her own company and her licencees. Barry walks the talk.
Barry’s home isn’t the only thing that’s new in her life. In the pipeline is a collection of women’s luggage for Hartmann and, possibly, accessories which she is designing. Considering all the travel that Barry has done – India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Sweden and Russia and now her first trip to Singapore – this is a natural extension of her work. Expect the same pared down elegance, perfect balance, and well-crafted class, with carefully placed colour thrown in, in her luggage and accessories. “Isn’t it exciting?” Barry smiles. “I can’t wait to finish.” She thinks aloud about how to display her accessories in stores and galleries. “Wouldn’t a beautiful bracelet look just right draped here [across some coffeetable books]? The Singapore gallery would work particularly well for my accessories.”
Bringing it All Together
Integrating her life, her business and her work has always been the way she operates. Dropping out of art school, she began working as a professional designer in Los Angeles and, in 1985, started her own company. “I just had a force in me to create interiors and to draw and to paint,” she asserts. “I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along. I’ve never worked for anybody.”
This strong artistic and entrepreneurial streak has served her well. In the 25 years Barbara Barry Inc has been around, it has grown from strength to strength. “I have 14 licensees,” she says. “I design everything from crystal to china to flatware to sheets.” In her illustrious portfolio of licensees, besides Henredon, are bigwigs in home and interior design such as Wedgwood Fine China, Baccarat Crystal, Body Lighting, Kravet Fabrics and Furnishings and Tufenkian Carpets to name a few.
The biggest challenge this successful designer, businesswoman and style icon faces today? “Remaining playful,” she says thoughtfully. “Getting to know who you are, really. Timing things so I don’t feel huge pressure to have to get things done. That is my process.”
Star Light, Star Bright
Shining example of beauty, elegance and pure refinement, all-American designer Barbara Barry shares with us her philosophy, her creative process and what’s new in her life, at the official launch of her year-old Singapore gallery at Proof Living.
This article was first published in Tatler Homes